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Obama to Thousands of Young Climate Activists: Push Me

Obama met with young climate activists and they didn't let the president off easy on his environmental priorities.

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The most notorious example is the cap-and-trade bill that was the centerpiece of Obama’s early climate policy. Although many environmentalists outside the Beltway complained that the bill promised at best incremental emissions reductions, both the White House and its Big Green allies insisted it was the only realistic way forward. The cap-and-trade bill’s weaknesses ended up leaving the environmental base unexcited about pushing their elected officials to approve it even as corporate and Republican hostility to climate action remained undeterred. Cap-and-trade was duly crushed on Capitol Hill, leaving environmentalists in disarray and polluters in ascendance.

“[Obama] told us it was our job to push the envelope and it’s his job to govern,” said Shadia Fayne Wood, a member of the steering committee of the Environmental Action Coalition. “That was really reassuring to hear from the president, because we’ve gotten lots of pressure from Big Green groups saying we shouldn’t be criticizing him. I think our meeting [with Obama] shows their strategy isn’t working, and it’s time for young people to be leaders of this movement.”

The young activists heard much the same message from Al Gore, Van Jones and other notables who addressed PowerShift 2011. Speaking to a crowd of thousands as lights flashed and music boomed through the Walter Washington Convention Center, Gore told the young activists in a near-shout that twenty-six was the average age of the NASA engineers who put a man on the moon in 1969. The crowd went nuts. Jones, a former Obama environmental adviser, later pointed out that these young activists had more computing power on their laptops and iPhones than the entire US government had at the time of the moon landing. “If you use your laptops and iPhones not as toys but as tools, you can change the world,” Jones said as another roar erupted and the crowd leaped to its feet.

The new direction these young climate activists are charting is based not on leveraging inside access in Washington or bending over backwards to find common ground with polluters. Instead, they’re finding that the route to wielding decisive power in Washington is through grassroots organizing outside of the Beltway that can keep elected officials honest. Thus most of PowerShift was spent on training sessions to help the activists build trust, develop unity, and improve their organizing skills. 

“We think this is the largest grassroots organizing training in US history,” said Courtney Hight, 31, the other co-organizer of PowerShift. Hight was a key youth organizer for Obama in 2008 and worked briefly in his White House before concluding that real change required exerting greater pressure from outside government to counter-balance the constant pressure from big corporations. “These ten thousand activists will leave here, go back to their campuses and communities, and work to stop coal, build the green economy and enable the Millennium Generation to play a non-partisan role in the 2012 election campaign.”

“We want to pull back the curtain on the role corporations play in our democracy and draw a line in the sand for politicians,” added Cowley. The young activists have already issued a clear demand to all candidates in the 2012 elections: if you want our support, you must pledge not to accept campaign contributions from big polluters. Asked at PowerShift whether Obama would make such a pledge, Kalpen Modi of the White House Office of Public Engagement said, “I don’t know.” The White House will have the opportunity to provide a more considered answer today, when thousands of young climate activists rally outside the front gates. In a sign these young people are refreshingly serious about politics and have only just begun to fight, the banners they will be carrying say, “Grow Power.”

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